Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lawyers challenge state's case for the death penalty.

By Jason Geary

Published: Thursday, July 24, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 24, 2008 at 2:48 p.m.
BARTOW Doctors testified Wednesday that convicted murderer Roy Phillip Ballard has brain damage that affects his ability to follow the law and control his behavior.

Prosecutors are urging jurors to recommend that the 67-year-old Zephyrhills man be executed by lethal injection for carrying out an intricate plan to kill his stepdaughter, Autumn Marie Traub.

Traub, 33, of Lakeland, disappeared on Sept. 13, 2006, after meeting with Ballard. Her body has never been found.

Prosecutors say Ballard killed Traub because she stood in the way of his regaining custody of a 14-year-old female relative he was molesting. They theorize Ballard beat Traub to death with an 18-inch metal pipe and then disposed of her body without a trace.

Jurors found Ballard guilty earlier this month of first-degree murder.

The jury must now decide whether he should spend the rest of his life in prison or be executed by lethal injection.

Defense experts testified that Ballard can carry out plans, but suffers from significant brain damage.

"He can have the ability to plan, but is it a good plan," said Dr. Joseph Sesta, a neuropsychologist. "Is it reasonable? Is it rational? I think in this case (that) it is not. It's a very haphazard plan."

Sesta was one of two doctors who testified Wednesday that Ballard's health problems have left him brain-damaged.

In early September 2006, Ballard suffered multiple seizures and strokes, and was hospitalized.

The girl identified as having been molested by Ballard testified that she visited Ballard while he was in the hospital, and he told her that he loved her and wanted to marry her.

Ballard's brain damage helps explain how he could have a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old female relative, Sesta said.

"There is a severe impairment in reasoning, judgment and the ability to conform his behavior to both legal standards - she is underage - and cultural standards - you don't have sex with family members," Sesta said.

Sesta, who has a private practice in Tampa, said Ballard's brain shows "mild to moderate impairment."

He said there is significant damage to the right side of Ballard's brain.

"Think of the left side (of the brain) as the gas and the right side as the brakes," explained Sesta.

"The brakes are either gone or they're weakened so a lot of behavior that wouldn't come out before now comes out."

Sesta said there is also damage to the frontal lobes of his brain, which control reasoning, judgment, planning, organization and the ability to conform to laws and rules.

During the trial, the defense has also argued that Ballard had a toxic level of seizure medication in his blood, which created side effects of mental confusion and memory impairment.

Under cross examination, Assistant State Attorney Cass Castillo pressed Sesta about Ballard's ability to carry out plans and set goals.

The prosecutor asked whether someone with no brain impairment can make unwise and illegal decisions.

"Absolutely," Sesta said. "You can be a dumb criminal."

"Aren't there some smart criminals, too?" Castillo asked.

"You can be a smart criminal and still get caught - yes," Sesta said.

Testimony continues today, and then the jury is expected to begin discussing a recommendation.

Under Florida law, Circuit Judge Donald Jacobsen must give the jury's recommendation great weight.

Prosecutors are expected to argue that Traub's murder was "cold, calculated and premeditated" - an aggravating circumstance that can provide the legal basis for a death sentence.

[ Reporter Jason Geary can be reached at or 863-802-7536. ]

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